- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 3, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Hard to believe, but children born in the United States this year will graduate from high school in 2025. When those children — the Class of 2025 — walk across their graduation stages, will they wonder why they have fewer opportunities than the last generation?

Unless we change the current political paradigm, the Class of 2025 will argue that their future was compromised by the previous generation’s monumental shortsightedness. They will point to unchecked physical infrastructure degradation, erosion of the educational system, astronomical health care costs, runaway litigation, regulation persistently driving opportunity offshore, disinvestment in research and development, consistently reckless deficit spending, and mounting debt.

They will ask why public spending on retired boomers should crowd out programs for their own age segment. They will question why we failed to treat symptomatic problems that translate to a loss of competitiveness, a loss of opportunity and a loss of stability and security for their generation.

Obviously, this is a scenario we should want to avoid. In the interim, we can maintain or even strengthen U.S. competitiveness by taking three key steps.

First, we need to upgrade our people to compete in a world of relentless globalization. Here we have a long way to go. A 2006 National Geographic Roper Survey of Americans ages 18 to 24 revealed, for example, that only 37 percent could find Iraq on a map. Nearly one-half believed that Islam was the majority religion in India.

According to the Association of American Colleges and Universities, fewer than 10 percent of four-year graduates leave college globally prepared. It argues that “The United States is a global power … [b]ut it provides most of its students with a parochial education.”

Moreover, test results consistently show that younger Americans lag behind many of their international counterparts in math and science. The indicators are unequivocal: We need a fundamental reassessment of K-12 and higher education from the standpoint of national competitiveness. We can begin by adopting core recommendations that emerged from the committee on “Prospering in the Global Economy of the 21st Century,” established by the National Academies of Science in 2005: recruit 10,000 new science and math teachers each year through competitive scholarships and strengthen the skills of 250,000 current teachers through funded training and education.

Second, we need to renew and expand our country’s physical infrastructure. The tragic bridge collapse in Minneapolis a year ago was a horrible reminder of how degraded our systems have become. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that an investment of $1.6 trillion over five years will be required to restore what it calls the country’s “crumbling” infrastructure - ports, airports, railways, highways, bridges and roads - before the next big tragedy occurs.

To enhance the country’s competitiveness, however, we’ll need to do even more. With mounting global pressures on food, water and energy resources, the U.S. can take a leading role in defining alternative strategies and approaches to communication, transportation and power generation. Exploring new ways to finance such initiatives, such as the proposed National Infrastructure Bank, is imperative. The continuation of today’s stopgap practices simply won’t cut it.

Finally, we need to avoid saddling the Class of 2025 with crippling debt and other fiscal deficits. This implies wholesale shifts from what former U.S. Comptroller General David Walker has described as the “burning platform” of the federal government: among other things, runaway health care costs, mounting social insurance commitments and widening tax gaps as the American population ages.

Last year, the GAO estimated that the fiscal burden faced by the U.S. - $50.5 trillion - was the equivalent of a staggering 95 percent of all household wealth. The record federal budget deficit for fiscal 2009, announced this week, is $482 billion. That’s more than $1,500 for every citizen in the country. These numbers show how serious the fiscal challenge already is. The implications of inaction transcend the obvious drag on economic growth and prosperity. Ultimately, they will translate into polarizing intergenerational equity issues.

According to the latest World Economic Forum assessment, the United States is the most competitive nation in the world. But symptoms of the rapidly changing global economy are all around us.

When the Class of 2025 graduates, China’s economy could be as large as the U.S. economy, if not larger. Goldman Sachs predicts that the four “BRIC” countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) could represent aggregate output almost as large as that of the Group of Seven. Some 80 percent of middle-income consumers will be situated outside the developed world.

While such progress should be applauded, it will mean ever greater challenges for the next generation of Americans. Therefore, it falls on our generation to give the Class of 2025 a solid understanding of the world, a strong infrastructure on which to operate and a sound fiscal footing.

Erik R. Peterson is senior vice president and director of the Global Strategy Institute at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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